It had been a long afternoon, with no wind down the gorge to break the sweltering grip of the summer sun. Even down on the waterfront there was no relief. Workers on the docks had stripped their outer layers, some even bare to the waist, their only means of enduring the oppressive heat.
Not Barris. His tabard stayed on, with the Fleuracy badge pinned properly to the shoulder. Shirt sleeves fastened at the wrist, collar decorously closed around his neck. Trousers tucked into boots that had been polished with care the night before. He had tied his black hair back, to keep it out of his face, but that was the only concession he’d made in his appearance.
It was a statement.
Perhaps not the most reasonable one, he considered, as he paused at the top of the gangplank that lead onto the barge he had been instructed to load. He wiped at the sweat on his forehead, wondering if there hadn’t been some other, less uncomfortable way to make his point. How much did clothes define a man, anyway?
The barge swayed in the river’s current, and barrel he was in the midst of moving tottered. He put out a hand, but before he could steady it, it rolled out of his grasp. Lurching the rest of the way down the gangplank, it hit the deck with a thud that made the whole barge rock. Tierce and Romeric, tying down cargo, were caught unprepared and had to grab at the ropes to keep themselves from topping over the low rail into the river.
“Sorry!” he quickly called out as he chased after it, but the other two only laughed, and then resumed their pointless conversation as if he hadn’t interrupted them.
“That can’t be the last bridge,” Romeric waved a hand at the bridge that stretched across the river to the east, a fortified span crowned by three square towers. Fishing boats and tradesmen’s barges slid beneath the high stone arches, along with one sleek pleasure craft with a bright red hull, pulled against the current by a crew of hired oarsmen. He leaned over the side of the barge so he could peer downriver. “I can see at least two more beyond it.”
“It didn’t say it’s the last bridge.” Tierce grinned despite his sunburnt cheeks. When he finished the knot he was working on, he leaned against one of the crates, taking a moment to rest and mop the sweat from his brow with a shirt sleeve. He and Romeric had discarded their tabards hours ago, and rolled up their sleeves like common dockworkers, but it hadn’t kept them from suffering from the heat any. “It’s just called Last Bridge. Maybe it was the last bridge when it was built a hundred years ago, but then the woodcarvers’ guild built the Level. And past that is the Summer Bridge, built by…was it House Dunac, Barris? Or Ivrane that built the Summer Bridge?”
“It was Bonifel House.” Barris gave his barrel a shove so that it butted up against those already stacked. His back twinged as he straightened, and he suppressed a grimace of pain. His muscles ached, his head throbbed from the glare of the sun, and there wasn’t a bit of him that wasn’t soaked with sweat after hours of labor. The last thing he wanted to talk about was bridges and who had built them, especially with this presumptuous, overconfident foreigner whose accent grated on his nerves like ice limes on a sore tooth.
“That’s right. Bonifel. And then a mile or so downstream is Willow Crossing, but that’s not really part of the city proper.”
“You Evremes and your thrice-cursed bridges!” Romeric exclaimed in frustration. “Someone told me that I would see a hundred bridges in Corregal and I told him he was mad. Next time we meet, I’ll have to apologize.” He flicked a strand of blond hair from his face in annoyance. “Who needs a hundred bridges in one city?”
“One hundred and twenty-seven,” Barris corrected automatically.
“On most days,” Tierce added. It was an old joke, but it made Barris smile despite his bad mood.
Romeric threw up his hands. “Madness.” He strode up the gangplank towards the wharf. “I’ll go get the next one.”
The wide, flat-bottomed barge was tied up alongside a stone pier, one of dozens that jutted out from a wharf that had been carved out of the stones of the river bank itself. Vaulted bays covered the entrances to the cavernous warehouses built under the hill, and Romeric disappeared inside to fetch more of the cargo they had been assigned to load.
The Jurati had proved a better worker than expected, when he’d first volunteered to join Barris and Tierce on the disciplinary chore. “It was my fault that you were late,” he explained, with a contrite smile. “It’s fair I share in the punishment.” Sieur Eristan just nodded quiet in approval. Fair or not, Barris hadn’t thought Romeric would be much help–neither his rich clothes and jewels nor his casual arrogance pointed to any experience with hard labor. He reckoned the Jurati would do just enough work to get in the way…if he didn’t find some way to weasel out of it entirely.
But Romeric had bent his back to the work with good humor, never uttering even the slightest complaint about the strenuous labor, the heat of the early summer sun beating down on them, or even the stench of old fish that clung to the riverfront. In fact, it looked as if with his help they were going to get done sooner than expected.
“There’s no shame in hard work,” he’d told them, at their first grumbles about the unaccustomed labor. “After the Khar attacked Jurat, everybody worked. So many people died, there weren’t enough to bring in the crops. There was one boy, a little princeling, yes? He thought he was too good to work in the fields. His grandmother told him, if you think you’re too good to grow the food, you’re too good to eat it too. And she wouldn’t let him have any food. A few days of no eating was enough. After that he was all too willing to do his share.”
“Did you really fight at Wardens Shore?” It was Tierce who asked it, of course. He’d been dying to learn the truth of that story since the day before, on the Bridge of Blades.
The Jurati’s expression had turned grave. “I did. I wasn’t supposed to. I was with the other boys, in the back. Carrying messages, helping the wounded, whatever we could do. But there were so many Khar…when they overran the lines, if you didn’t fight, you died.” His eyes grew distant, troubled by memory. But then shook his head, and whatever dark thoughts he’d been thinking slid away in the summer brightness. “When we get done here, what say you let me buy you both a drink? You have taverns in this town, right? Not just bridges?”
He smiled companionably, and because Tierce accepted the offer, Barris did to. It didn’t mean he liked him any better, though. The Jurati was too flashy, too overconfident – even his accent grated against his nerves. At least if they went to the Point it would be noisy enough they wouldn’t have to talk.
It took Tierce and Barris both to lift the barrel into place with the rest of the cargo. They had just gotten into position and were tying it into place when a voice called out over the water towards them.
“Barris? Barris Aderen, is that you? I told you it was Barris, Rion, and you didn’t believe me. You owe me a silver sal now.”
Common sense told him he’d regret it, but Barris turned to look anyway. The red pleasure boat had come alongside the barge, its two-man crew holding it in place against the current with the oars. A half-dozen people bunched together on the middle seats — all young and well-dressed and smiling, enjoying their outing on the river. Barris knew them all. Had counted them each as friends once. Even Cael Averre, who stood in their midst, wearing a fresh, sweat-free tunic and a too-smug smile on his face.
By the thrice-cursed fiends, indeed.
“It’s a sad day,” Cael said, though there was nothing particularly compassionate about his tone of voice, “when the scion of a Great House has to work for a living. But then…that’s right. Aderen isn’t a Great House anymore. Is it.”
As if Barris needed anyone to remind him.
Eristan had warned him this would happen, that there would be those who would try to shame him for his father’s crime. He could fight them, Eristan had told him, or he could ignore them. The choice was his. Either way, only time would silence those that carried any doubt.
He turned his back on the boat and on Cael’s smug expression. It was hard, though, and his hands shook as he pretended to work with the ropes. In his stomach a bitter, persistent knot tightened uncomfortably.
Tierce leaned close and hissed, “He’s an ass. Don’t pay him any attention.” He was trying to help, of course, but he couldn’t understand. Not really, He wasn’t from Corregal. He hadn’t been here when the Sun Bridge had fallen. He didn’t know what it had done to this city, which prided itself so much for its bridges. What they meant to the people who built them. Tierce tried, but he could never know what it was like to be the son of the man who was responsible for bringing one down, for the chaos, the destruction. The death.
Cael, of course, was not in the mood to be ignored. At his imperious order, one of the hirelings traded his oar for a long hook and used it to latch onto the side of the barge and pull the red boat close-to. As the two vessels bumped together, bobbing in the current, the young bravo sprang across the gap and landed on the deck of the barge with a thud.
“What’s the matter, Barris?” he asked as he prowled down the deck, voice curling with contempt. A scabbard swung at his hip, sunlight glinting off the gold-embellished hilt of the sword it held. “Couldn’t you find a job gutting fish on Grayling Bridge?”
More laughs from the boat. Barris felt his face flush and struggled to keep his composure. Eristan had warned him, but it didn’t make the taunting any easier to endure. Shame clung thicker than sweat, and stank worse. “I do what Sieur Eristan tells me to do,” he said, and hated himself for not being able to look Cael in the eye when he said it.
The other youth threw back his head and laughed. “Oh, that makes sense! Here everyone thought he was doing you a favor when he took you in. It turns out he was just looking for cheap labor!”
“That’s it, Cael!” Tierce. Mild-mannered usually, not easy to anger, but angry now. Fists tight at his side. He stepped between them now, dark eyes fierce. “What are you trying to prove?”
Cael didn’t look at him. Didn’t even bother to get irritated at the interruption. “Stay out if it, sheep-boy. If I wanted to talk to you, I’d find a shepherd to translate for me.” He flicked his hand as if to shoo him away, all his scorn pinned on Barris. “You know I’m right, Aderen. You don’t deserve Fleuracy, not after what your father – “
“Barris isn’t responsible for what his father did!”
“I said be quiet!” This time, Cael snapped at Tierce, and his hand went for his sword. Whether he actually meant to draw it or not, no one ever knew.
The warning came just a moment too late. The barrel was already halfway down the gangplank by the time Romeric’s half-hearted, “Watch out” alerted anyone that it was careening towards them. Barris and Tierce, who were facing that direction, had just enough time to scramble clear. But Cael was closer. By the time he whipped around to see what was happening, it was already crashing into him.
The barrel bounced one way; he went the other — right over the side of the barge and into the water.
A splash. A moment’s stunned silence.
“Oops,” said Romeric, sounding entirely unapologetic.
Someone on the red boat screamed, and someone else laughed, and then there was shouting as Cael thrust his head out of the water, sputtering, flailing, and cursing. The hired oarsmen burst into action, scrambling to retrieve their customer from the water before the current carried him away.
Barris and Tierce gaped in astonishment as Romeric strolled down the gangplank to join them. Together they watched the red boat swing about, rocking dangerously when some of the passengers – Cael’s friends – tried to lean over the side to pull him out.
When it became clear that Cael’s life was not actually at risk – he could swim well enough to keep himself afloat, at least – Tierce’s shock gave way to mirth and he collapsed against the stacked barrels, holding his sides in laughter. But Barris found it hard to find any humor in the situation. He gave Romeric an incredulous look. “I can’t believe you did that.”
“Boats are dangerous places,” the foreigner said, a placid expression on his face. “He should be more careful.”
After more shouting and curses, the boatmen managed to haul Cael out of the water and into the boat. The deposited him, dripping wet, into the midst of his companions, who were clearly torn between their concern for him and their concern for their finery getting dripped on by their soggy friend. Cael struggled to his feet and turned towards the barge, face contorted with anger.
You…!” He shouted at Romeric, his face turned several shades redder than should have been possible. “You could have killed me!” He lurched forward, but the red boat had drifted too far downstream now to do anything but shout. and the boatmen clearly weren’t going to do anything to stop it.
As the boat moved away, Romeric cupped a hand to his mouth to make sure Cael heard every word “If I wanted to kill you, I would have used something a little more reliable than a barrel of dried fish.” He allowed himself a laugh then, quiet and self-satisfied. Not mocking. Tierce still cackled in amusement.
Even from this far away, Barris could see the fury in the look Cael sent their way. “He’s not going to forget this,” he murmured to the Jurati in warning. “He’ll come after you, sooner or later.”
“So let him come.” Romeric shrugged, then clapped him companionably on the shoulder. “I know you’ll have my back. Let’s get this finished so we can get that drink, yes?”
As he strode off to collect his errant barrel, Barris watched him with a divided mind. He didn’t think he liked him any better, but it wasn’t every day that a near-stranger tossed someone into the river on your behalf. Whether it was a matter of house loyalty or some other kind of madness that had prompted the barrel-rolling routine, he couldn’t be sure. But there was something reassuring about having someone willing to stand up for you like that. Yes, having that drink might not be so bad after all. At least in the tavern it would be noisy enough he wouldn’t have to listen to him talk. And, if he was lucky, he might even be able to have some fresh ice limes.